Vulnerable people are deliberately being targeted and threatened in Uckfield, police were told at a meeting in town last night.
The claim was made by a woman said she was too scared to go into town on her own, or to walk across Luxford Field, after being confronted by a mixed group of young people on bikes and asked whether she had cigarettes or money.
She asked the group to move their bicycles. “If I hadn’t been forceful I would have been down on the floor,” she said.
Parents told how their children were afraid to go into town and worried about their parents when they went out, even calling them to make sure they were all right.
The father of a nine-year-old boy said control had now been lost in Uckfield town centre. A group of youngsters had done this and people were vulnerable, whether adult or child.
“This has had a huge effect on the town itself. Now all of a sudden we are not using the town. We are driving off to Lewes or Tunbridge Wells. We don’t want our kids to come into town.”
Another woman told how her husband had been assaulted in town but couldn’t identify his attackers because they were wearing hoodies and so police closed the case.
They had asked why the case was closed when there were CCTV cameras, only to be told the police didn’t have the resources to look through them.
A woman who led calls on Facebook for a meeting with police said she was horrified that people felt they couldn’t report crime – such as sexual activity in a park in front of small children and stones being thrown into a park and property – because they didn’t get a response.
People didn’t feel they should call 999 and they couldn’t get a reply from 101.
She added unreported crime made crime figures look lower than they were.
Three top police officers, including Assistant Chief Constable Nick May, were at the meeting held at short notice at the Civic Centre, to hear about concerns of the public. Mr May was accompanied by District Commander Chief Inspector Anita Turner and Wealden District Inspector Jon Gross.
All three gave assurances that they were working hard to address issues and said progress was being made.
Insp Gross reported what the police were doing to tackle anti-social behaviour and explained on-going strategy for dealing with a “relatively small group of individuals terrorising some parts of town”.
He said there had been three main investigations in the last fortnight – one a “fairly public assault” on May 12 – and arrests had been made in all three cases, eight people in all. That involved a concerted effort for a lot of staff in his team identifying witnesses and suspects and following up.
Individuals were put on police bail with conditions which prevented them from being out at night and, in many cases, coming to Uckfield. “They were not Uckfield residents”.
In the short term measures were in place to enforce bail conditions with regular bail checks being done and this was a good starting point for addressing incidents that had happened, he said.
The crime prevention team was involved in 15 separate deployments in May and 30 different officers were involved in engagement work, patrolling ares of concern in Uckfield.
There was a link with Jarvis Brook in Crowborough where some of the individuals accessed the train. Two important arrests were made by transport police on the train between Crowborough and Uckfield and Insp Gross said he would like to see more of this.
He reiterated that a relatively small group of individuals were involved and said it was a priority for his team to continue working in town to address that in an appropriate way in the short, and long, term.
Going forward after half term week one of the things planned was to listen very closely to Uckfield College and Crowborough Beacon to make sure the right message was going back from the police into those schools.
Both schools were seeing and experiencing some of the worst behaviour of some of the individuals, he said.
Part of the strategy going forward was to single out ring leaders and prevent other groups forming.
Insp Gross said the police were working with Tesco and the Chamber of Commerce to put in place measures to prevent people congregating and causing a nuisance in the areas of Tesco, Waitrose, Civic Centre, and Luxford Field.
He couldn’t promise the police would be on every street corner and he needed people to support them with the best information they could give, showing where there were gaps.
The railway was important in terms of access into town and was a focal point for activity but there would be areas where people lived or worked and he was keen to hear what the issues were there. “If there is stuff going on there we are keen to hear that,” he added.
Insp Gross said the police were looking at licensing. There could be premises where alcohol was obtained legally by individuals over 18 to share with younger people and that could be an aggravating factor and so pressure could be put on establishments in Uckfield and Crowborough.
The police would continue to investigate bail conditions. The number of people on police bail would drop off after 28 days and it was unlikely they would be reimposed.
He said engagement patrols would continue. Some people would have been visited by PCSO Sue Choppin who was doing an excellent job in town and who could be contacted directly by the town council about issues and who would feed back to the police.
Police were making referrals to the Youth Offender Team who worked to correct behaviour before young people got a criminal record, but that process took time.
Young people coming to their notice could also be referred to a new Sussex-wide scheme called Reboot and if this worked it was a great opportunity to divert people away from a core group mentality.
The police stressed members of the public should call 999 if an offence was happening in front of them. Call handlers were very experienced and would recognise if it was not an emergency and could be down-graded.
People could also ring 101 – though it was accepted that was not as efficient as police would like and efforts were being made to improve the service.